PAL: Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide - An Ongoing Project

© Paul P. Reuben

Chapter 8: American Drama - A Brief Introduction

Outside Link: | Modern British, Irish, and American Drama: A Descriptive Chronology 1865-1965 |

Page Links: | An Outline History | Modern American Drama | Literary Aesthetics and Styles | Study Questions |

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

Site Links: | Elements of Drama | Chap. 8: Index | Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents | Home Page | November 2, 2011

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Walter Meserve, listed below, states that American Drama (AD) is a most neglected part of the study of American literature; this is startling since there is nearly 350 years of history of dramatic productions in America. Why was American Drama neglected?

Such study has value 1. as index to an active society, 2. as a background for modern AD, and 3. for the literary value of many plays.

"The first efforts at dramatic literature in this country were wild." - William Dunlap (A History of American Theatre, 1832, as quoted by Meserve) American plays were, writes Dunlap, "the essays of youth, not sufficiently instructed in anything and deficient in literary education, and though they were received favorably . . . both the dramatist an the people they addressed had not yet sufficiently matured their notions of the result of the great political changes which had taken place to know how far to assert independence in literature or government or how far to imitate their European ancestors."

If early attempts at dramatic literature were ild, writes Meserve, one could surely describe the beginnings of an American theatre as stormy:

1. Performances of plays were opposed by local and colonial governments and by certain religious groups.

2. Bankruptcy was a common hazard for theatre managers.

3. Playwrights were constantly subjected to abuse by theatre managers, actors, and the public.

It is not strange that good native drama before 1800 was rare.

An Outline History Of American Drama

Colonial Theater and Drama

A. Drama in the Colonies
1. The First American Play in English - possibly The Lost Lady (1641) by Sir William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia.

2. Early American Plays on Stage:

a. Ye Bare and Ye Cubb by William Darby, 1665;

b. Other Plays written and performed

3. First Play printed in America: Androborus by Robert Hunter, 1714

B. Actors and Acting Companies in the Colonies

1. Problems of the Actors in America

2. Early Theaters and Acting Companies: Walter Murray and Thomas Kean

3. A Company of Comedians from London: Lewis Hallam

4. The American Company: David Douglass

C. Drama in the Colonies

1. First Play written by an American and performed in America by Professional Actors - The Prince of Parthia (1759?) by Thomas Godfrey

2. Other Early Native Drama

3. College Drama in the Colonies

4. First Play to treat a native subject - Ponteach or The Savages of America by Robert Rogers (1766)

Drama During the Revolution and the Post Revolutionary Period to 1800

A. Plays Reflecting Patriot Views during the Revolution

B.Plays Reflecting Loyalist Views during the Revolution

C. Nonpartisan Drama

D. The Beginnings of American Comedy: Royall Tyler's The Contrast, 1787 (first comedy)

E. The Father of American Drama: William Dunlap

F. Post-Revolutionary Drama: Varied Directions

Theater During the Revolution and the Post Revolutionary Period to 1800

A. Theater during the Revolution

B. Theater from the Revolution to 1800

Top Drama of a New Nation, 1800-1865

A. Plays from the Town Crier: Nationalism on Stage

B. Poetic Drama: The Serious Dramatist at Work

C. Native American Character Types: Jonathan, Sambo, and Metamora

D. A Mirror of the Times

E. Yankee Originality: American's Contribution to World Theater

F. Theater before the Civil War

American Drama from the Civil War to World War I

A. The Rise of Realism in American Drama

B. The Beginnings of Social Drama: Comment, Comedy, and Melodrama

C. The Age of Melodrama

D. The Popular Farce

E. Poetic Drama

F. A New Seriousness

G. Beginnings in Dramatic Criticism

H. A Developing Theater

(from Meserve, Walter J. An Outline History of American Drama. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams, 1965.)

Top Modern American Drama

Drama lags behind other genres because of its demands of collaboration between the playwright and the producer, a largely conservative audience, and the requirements of a theatre, actors, set design, and a director.

By the end of the WWI, the hold of greedy businessmen, who peddled inferior plays for profit, came to an end. This was signaled by the strike by Actors' Equity in 1917, which shut all New York theaters.

The Little Theater Movement

1912 The Little Theatre in New York,founded by Winthrop Ames; Chicago's Little Theatre, founded by Maurice Brown; Toy Theatre in Boston, founded by Mrs. Lyman Gale.

1915 New York:

The Neighborhood Theatre, 466 Grand Street (Lower East Side), founded by Alice and Irene Lewisohn. First production: Jephthah's Daughter, February 12, 1915. Offered American plays as well as those from Europe, Japan, and India. Closed in 1930

The Provincetown Players, began in the artist-colony at Cape Cod, was devoted to offering only works by American writers. Its fame is tied with its support of young Eugene O'Neill. Other prominent participants were the couple, George "Jig" Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell, John Reed and Louise Bryant, Max Eastman and Ida Rauh, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. In Fall, 1916 they opened, in New York, the Playwrights Theatre at 139 MacDougal Street and moved to 133 MacDougal for 1918-19 season. For six seasons through 1921-22, this group presented 16 plays by O'Neill, 11 by Glaspell, and a total of 93 works by nearly 50 American writers.

The Washington Square Players organized themselves to producing plays of merit which were ignored by the commercial Broadway producers. Compared to the above two groups, their plays received critical praise for their professional productions. Authors presented were Europeans Ibsen, Chekov, Shaw, Wilde, and Americans Elmer Rice, John Reed, Alice Gerstenberg, Glaspell, and O'Neill. After a three season run, it became the Theatre Guild.

1916 The Cleveland Playhouse; Pasadena Community Playhouse, founded by Gilmore Brown; Detroit Arts and Crafts Theatre, founded by Sam Hume.

1919 Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, New Orleans.

Top Literary Aesthetics and Styles

Realism (for introduction and bibliography, checkout Chapter 5)
Stage realism is the use of ordinary people, in ordinary settings, using commonplace dialect. The stage props represent a camera photograph. Realistic plays show aspects of real people playing out conflicts and intrigues which refelect the ordinary experiences of American middle class life. Recognizable heroes and villains were replaced with ordinary characters showing ordinary strengths and weaknesses. The relacement of gas light by electricity helped in the creation of realistic ambience.

Naturalism (for introduction and bibliography, checkout Chapter 6)

A commonly interchangeable term with realism, naturalism assumes that humans are controlled by their environment, fate, psychology, chance or coincidence; realistic characters are in control of their destinies. Naturalistic situations are generally pessimistic and deterministic. Trapped and controlled, human behavior is instinctual and animalistic; there is heroism in a human's desire to survive against insurmountable odds.

Expressionism

In expressionistic plays, the playwright's subjective sense of reality finds expression. The characters and the milieu may be realistic, but their presentation on stage is controlled by the writer's personal biases and inclinations. No longer a camera photograph, the stage could be higly elaborate or bare; the accompanying lighting, costumes, music, and scenery could be similarly non-realistic. More like a dream, expressionistic writing has no recognizable plot, conflicts, and character developments. However, the threads are still audience friendly; expressionism is not absurdism or an exercise in obscurity.
(Information on Modern American Drama is from Miller & Frazer. American Drama between the Wars: a Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1991. PS351 .M5)

Top Study Questions

1. Only dramatists, among contemporary writers, appear to perceive the possibility for genuine tragedy in American character and American life. The antiheroes of fiction disappear in Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and August Wilson. Despite the pathos of their lives, Blanche Dubois, Willy Loman, and Troy Maxson are tragic. Analyze one of these characters as a tragic hero, paying particular attention to the way the dramatic form precludes the experimentation of Mailer, Barth, or Pynchon. Alternatively, compare and contrast Blanche DuBois, Willy Loman, or Troy Maxson with Saul Bellow's Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day.

2. Comment on the way the American plays included in NAAL use formal divisions: O'Neill's acts in Long Day's Journey into Night, Williams's series of scenes in A Streetcar Named Desire, Miller's free movements from scene to scene in Death of a Salesman, and the use of scene divisions by David Mamet.

3. Compare and contrast the way Williams constructs Blanche DuBois's southern speech with the way Faulkner, Welty, or O'Connor do for their southern characters in the anthologized stories. 4. Read a play by Lillian Hellman (Little Foxes, The Children's Hour), Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun), Ntozake Shange (For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide), Marsha Norman ('Night, Mother), or Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles) and compare it with one of the plays in NAAL.

5. American playwrights have often used siblings within a family to stand for divisions within the self or for two opposing forces. Consider the relationships between James Jr. and Edmund in Long Day's Journey into Night; Blanche and Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire; Biff and Happy in Death of a Salesman; and Troy and Gabriel in Fences.

6. Only dramatists, among contemporary writers, appear to perceive the possibility for genuine tragedy in American character and American life. The antiheroes of fiction disappear in Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and August Wilson. Despite the pathos of their lives, Blanche Dubois, Willy Loman, and Troy Maxson are tragic. Analyze one of these characters as a tragic hero, paying particular attention to the way the dramatic form precludes the experimentation of Mailer, Barth, or Pynchon. Alternatively, compare and contrast Blanche DuBois, Willy Loman, or Troy Maxson with Saul Bellow's Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day.

7. Comment on the way the American plays included use formal divisions: O'Neill's acts in Long Day's Journey into Night, Williams's series of scenes in A Streetcar Named Desire, Miller's free movements from scene to scene in Death of a Salesman, and the use of scene divisions by David Mamet.

8. Compare and contrast the way Williams constructs Blanche DuBois's southern speech with the way Faulkner, Welty, or O'Connor do for their southern characters in the anthologized stories.

9. Read and compare a play by Lillian Hellman (Little Foxes, The Children's Hour), Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun), Ntozake Shange (For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide), Marsha Norman ('Night, Mother), or Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles).

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 8: American Drama - An Introduction." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap8/8intro.html (provide page date or date of your login).
 

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